28 May 2009

Happiness and Other Disorders shortlisted for Danuta Gleed

Ahmad Saidullah was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for Happiness and Other Disorders, his first short story collection, along with Rebecca Rosenblum, Pasha Malla, Ian Colford, and Betsy Trumpener. Pasha Malla won the Gleed. Ian and Rebecca were the runners up. The winners announced in Calgary at the Writers Union AGM on May 23, 2009.

Congratulations, Pasha, Ian and Rebecca.

Some notices about the shortlist:

Rebecca Rosenblum blog
Lethbridge Herald
Canada East
The Record
All Voices
The Star
Guelph Mercury

07 September 2008

Literary animus in the New Russia

Last night, we were startled to come across a reference in a book of short stories to another Russian writer we had just read. 

Viktor Erofeyev, enfant terrible of the new Russian wave which includes Andreï Makine and Viktor Pelevin, mentions a Vladimir Sorokin in his story titled The Shit-Sucker in his collection Life with an Idiot

Having been demobilised four years ago, Vladimir Sorokin, member of the Young Communist League, had returned to his native village, not too proud to get his hands dirty in shitty work on the farm. Now the whole region was trying to emulate this cattle breeder.

Hardly a coincidence as Sorokin the novelist is well known not just in his country. Anyway, it makes us wonder about the state of libel laws in the New Russia. Are the grapes sour?

It oughtn't to surprise us, though, as Erofyev rebelled against his privileged upbringing among the Stalinist elite. Erofeyev is the son of one of Stalin's translators. His father became a key figure in that regime.

Anyway, the set piece of Erofeyev's Life with an Idiot is not The Shit-Sucker but The Parakeet which we urge you to read.

Here are Erofeyev and Sorokin side by side, a tableau that we suspect doesn't happen often in life. In the spirit of mischief, we have placed Sorokin on the right and Erofeyev on the left.

Netherland: A conversation with Joseph O'Neill

Joseph O'Neill's Netherland is an account of an immigrant in the cricketing fraternity of New York. As a quondam cricket fan and writer, we were interested in reading this piece in The Guardian. O'Neill is rumoured to be a long shot for the Booker, for those of you who follow literary punting.

The Assassin's Song: A review

Giles Foden, author of books on Africa, reviews Moyez Vassanji's The Assassin's Song in the Guardian.

06 September 2008

Geist excerpts Happiness

Geist magazine published an excerpt from Happiness in Curiosa.

Happiness has a Face(book)

Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories has its own Facebook group.

You can read excerpts from several reviews of Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories published in Canada and India, as well as news and announcements.

Join the Happiness and Other Disorders group to read the latest announcements and reviews.

There's also the Happiness blogspot.

Reviews of How Fiction Works by James Wood

Two recent reviews of James Wood's How Fiction Works:

Catherine Bush's Globe review and Morgan Meis' The Smart Set review from Drexel.

The Kenyon Review on adverbs

A writer friend is editing the adverbs out of the second edition of her book. We sent her this Kenyon Review feuilleton recently.

This was an act of literary exchange. She reads Sentences and was kind enough to recommend it to us.

Atlantic Canadian Fiction

Stephen Clare and Trevor Adams are producing a book for Nimbus Publishing in Halifax to be released next year titled "Spindrift; The 100 Greatest Atlantic Canadian Books Ever Written."

By way of methodology, they are polling over 1,000 writers, readers and literary people of all sorts across the country to submit their "Top 10" list of fiction/non-fiction works from the East Coast.

So please, share your favourites with them. Feel free to include comments on the books you choose and why they're important to you. Don't limit yourself to fiction, either - feel free to include biographies, historical works, travelogues, and the like.

The only criterion is that the author(s) be from Atlantic Canada, and/or lived in the region for a significant period during their writing careers. And if you are having a hard time coming up with 10 titles, send them your top 5, or even top 3.

Please send your choices along to bookpoll@gmail.com

The deadline for submission is September 30, 2008.

For regularly updated information, visit the website: freewebs.com/bookpoll

Least likely literary places

The Guardian on places unlikely to have inspired writers.

Click here for the story and comments.

I wonder about other countries and their literary maps. Any ideas?

Rushdie reviewed in The Nation

Back after a while....

William Deresiewicz reviews The Enchantress of Florence. Click here for the review

02 January 2008

The Writer as Satchmo

Time for writers to blow a few of their own trumpets even if they don’t bring the walls of Jericho down.Advance praise for the book:

"Brimming with unexpected humour and poignancy, and rich in sub-text, Saidullah’s stories never disappear. They haunt you!”
—Deepa Mehta, director of the Academy Award nominated film Water.

“Ahmad Saidullah is a storyteller with an engaging and original voice and a surfeit of talent.”
—Bapsi Sidhwa, author of Cracking India and Water.

“These remarkable stories are propelled by a quiet but purposeful insight. They twist and turn in delightful ways. Where you would expect anger, there is compassion; where you might anticipate grimness, there is humour. An accomplished first collection.”
—Rabindranath Maharaj, author of A Perfect Pledge

"Obsession and desperate attempts at escape propel these interconnected lives. This is a startling and memorable debut.”
—Catherine Bush, author of Claire’s Head and The Rules of Engagement

Quill and Quire, Canada’s leading publishing trade journal, has given Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories a starred feature review. Heather Birrell loved the stories. Some excerpts from the review.

"The author’s stunning prose and subtle sense of the symbolic allow the tales to transcend their conventions. . . Saidullah’s bouts of description are either grounded in sensory detail — “the tinkle from the local shaka, the lowing of cows being milked, the rococo of a distant, laggard cock, and the occasional roar of a lorry rushing past” — or float away on a raft of dreamlike imagery. Either way, the writing is mesmerizing and confident. . . Like his weaver, the author of Happiness and Other Disorders possesses an entirely singular form of ominous and lovely second sight; he also has the literary chops to give it voice. Saidullah is a tale-spinner of the first order, and this collection is both a mystery and a treasure."

Other favourable mentions include Halifax News which names it among his 10 picks and South Asian Outlook. DemiRep writing on the blog Kissing in the Grass picks Happiness as one of five books, after Yann Martel, Garcia Marquez, Margaret Macmillan
 and Stacey May Fowles while Lindsey Keilty of The Daily News picks the book as “hot.” Here’s what was said:

HOT: Diversity

The face of Canadian literature is changing, as many first and second generation immigrant authors compare and contrast their lives before and after coming to this country, writes Clare.

Hamida Ghafour, Ameen Merchant, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Leilah Nadir, Ahmad Saidullah and Darcy Tamayose are a few of the names now emerging as the new voice of Canada.

28 July 2006

Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories

Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories, our book of short stories was published by Key Porter Books on Saturday 5 January 2008.

The book can be ordered from Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.ca.

This is from the book jacket:

Set in India, Burma, England, the Czech Republic, Greenland, the US, and Canada, from World War II to the present, Happiness and Other Disorders offers subtle and vivid portraits of characters and societies torn apart by violence and oppression.

Ahmad Saidullah displays a fine command over a wide and complex range of emotional effects, narrative styles, genres, and devices, all woven together in this debut collection.

In “Vatan and the Cow”, an old man, whose son has married out of his religion, is forced to go on a pilgrimage to a holy place in the foothills of the Himalayas, only to return home empty-handed and broken in spirit.

In “Flight into Egypt”, which was a finalist in the Drunken Boat Pan Literary Awards, an unnamed man flees on a train bound for Bombay after assassinating a politician during a religious riot in western India.

“Happiness and Other Disorders” is a comic account of the editor's back problems written in a unique run-on style. And “The Guest” is the haunting story of an Indian woman whose musical madness reveals a peculiarly Scottish slant.

14 May 2006

Ahmad Saidullah wins CBC Literary Award

Ahmad Saidullah's short story Happiness And Other Disorders won second prize in the 2005 CBC Literary Awards held at La Grande Bibliotheque in Montreal, Canada on 26 February 2006. 3,500 entries in all English and French categories were sent in by Canadians from all over the world. The English fiction jurors were Random House Canada publisher Anne Collins and award-winning novelists Catherine Bush and Eden Robinson.

Prizes were awarded on the author's use of language, originality of subject and writing style. Novelist Bill Richardson and Montreal journalist Chantal Jolie were the MCs at the event. The jury called Happiness And Other Disorders "a lively monologue that takes us on a journey across continents and makes the collision between cultures bizarrely literal, doing so with idiosyncrasy, humour and empathetic breadth." CBC presenter Bill Richardson noted that Happiness And Other Disorders was unique among the 3,500 entries received in being written in one sentence which was 7-pages long.

Ahmad is the third Canadian South Asian writer after Michael Ondaatje and Shauna Singh Baldwin to be recognized by Canada's top literary short story prize and the first since the awards were redesigned in 2001. Past winners have also included Carol Shields, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Robert Munsch, Susan Musgrave, Leon Rooke, Michel Tremblay, and Monique Proulx. For writeups on the current winners, click here.

Happiness and other disorders can be read in the June 2006 edition of enRoute, Air Canada's flight magazine, and will reach a million readers. The CBC Literary Awards were broadcast in April 2006 and the story was read by Cedric De Souza on Between the Covers on CBC Radio Canada's national airwaves on 23 May 2006.

Canada Council for the Arts. Air Canada, and enRoute were the principal partners for the awards.

Bookselling on the margins

What does it take to sell books? What are the risks to a street hawker hustling a sale at busy traffic lights in Delhi? Click here for visuals on a life on the margins.

Alison Pick wins CBC Literary Award for Poetry

Alison Pick, a rising literary star, won the top CBC Literary Award for poetry. Alison is the author of the novel The Sweet Edge, a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book of 2005. The title section of her poetry collection, Question & Answer, won the 2002 Bronwen Wallace Award for most promising writer under 35, and the 2003 National Magazine Award for Poetry. The book itself was short-listed for both the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry in Canada, and for a Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award. Alison grew up in Kitchener, and spent summers in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Her first manuscript was written while living in Saskatchewan at a Benedictine monastery, then at a cattle ranch, and then in Saskatoon. She now divides her time between Ontario and St. John's, Newfoundland. Her winning poems, The Mind’s Eye, appear in EnRoute.

Paulette Dubé, Second Poetry Prize, CBC Literary Award

Because her parents made it to a hospital on time, Paulette Dubé was born in Westlock, Alberta. Growing up in the French village of Legal, she watched her third sister being born on the kitchen table and was suddenly sentient to miracles. She relies heavily on the good fortune of living in Jasper National Park these days for her inspiration.

Talon, her first novel, made the short lists for the 1999 Canadian Literary Awards, the Alberta Writers' Guild Best Novel Award (2003) and the Starburst Award (2003). Her poetry garnered a number of rewards including the Milton Acorn Memorial People's Poetry Award (1994), the CBC Alberta Anthology (1998) and now the CBC Literary Awards (2005). Read First Mountain in enRoute later this year.

Erin Soros wins the Bob Weaver Prize for Fiction (CBC Literary Award)

Erin Soros’ The Chorus won the 2005 Bob Weaver Prize, the top CBC Literary Award for short fiction. Soros was born and raised in Vancouver where she worked as a rape crisis counselor and as a coordinator of literacy programs for marginalized youth. She completed a MA in English at UBC and an MFA in Writing from Columbia University. In 2005, Erin was the George Bennett Writer-in-Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy. Her awards include a Fulbright Fellowship and the Governor General's Gold Medal. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in Canadian, American and Australian journals. A recent publication was chosen as a "Notable Essay" in The Best American Essays 2005. Erin is at work on her first novel. Read The Chorus.

CBC prizewinner Jane Hamilton’s Drafts 1-11 (Not Including 10)

Jane Silcott, whose essay won second prize in the CBC Literary Awards, had moved to the west coast 30 years ago from Toronto to ski and climb and live in a milk truck in the mountains. Now she lives in a house with her husband and two children, using the skills from her past life to scale the mountains of household chores on the way to her attic writing office. Jane has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC, and her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a variety of literary magazines. She recently completed a novel and is working on a series of prose poems. Jane Silcott spent most of her life as Jane Hamilton but recently adopted her grandmother's name as a pseudonym to prevent confusion with not just one, but two other writers, with her birth name. Read her charmingly personal Drafts 1-11 (Not Including 10).

La Regle du Jeu: A new Criterion for excellence

Between Munich and World War II, fresh from his successes with La Bete Humaine and Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir set out to paint "a precise portrait of the bourgeoisie" in France (which to the end of his life he thought of as "rotten"). To this corrosive satire, he applied a light touch, the gossamer trappings of a Musset play or a Marivaux comedy. Indeed, La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) opens with a quotation from Beaumarchais. He set it fittingly for the most part with its eighteenth-century sensibility of upstairs-downstairs intrigues, romantic preoccupations, its casual anti-semitism and conformist mores in Le Château de La Ferté Saint-Aubin outside Paris in 1939. As a film-making experiment from this most democratic, one may say socialist, of film directors, Renoir often abandoned his shooting script in favour of improvisation.

The film's reception has passed into history. Although he called it a magnificent failure, Renoir was crushed by the hostility shown by critics and viewers when La Regle opened in an elegant part of Paris. He recalled a man at the screening setting fire to a newspaper hoping to burn the theatre down. Renoir summoned his "editor" Marguerite Huguet to the viewings so she could cut scenes where the audiences booed the loudest. Predictably, they objected to what they saw as caricatures of the haute bourgeoisie; to Nora Gregor's age and nationality; to Dalio’s aristocratic character’s Jewish ancestry; to Renoir's own character Octave; to the slaughter at the hunting scenes which presaged war; to the restless camera work; to voices appearing on the soundtrack before the actors came into view; to his use of the long shot through interiors to suggest depth of field where concurrent actions were taking place; to the mixture of styles; and to the ensemble, decentred approach that he had taken in making La Regle. Despite the cuts from a 94-minute film to a 80-minute distribution version, the film closed at the Coliseum in Paris after three weeks. It lasted a few months at another Parisian theatre. With the onset of war, the French government banned the film altogether on grounds that it was demoralizing. It certainly demoralized Renoir who declared that he would give up making films or leave France. After a brief stint in Italy he left France to avoid collaborating with the Vichy regime and the Germans and went to Hollywood. His film company NEF went bankrupt. La Regle did not play in France again until 1962. It is now hailed as a masterpiece and the movie that anticipated the French New Wave.

That there is a revival now is entirely due to Jean Gaborit, a film enthusiast, who was stung by Truffaut's review of his ciné club's version of La Regle and set out to find the negative and the ten prints in France and north Africa. He had heard that the negative had been burned at the GM Labs in Boulogne during the Allied bombing. However, he discovered 224 reels with negatives, dupes and different versions of La Regle there. He and Jacques Durand, a film technician, slowly worked through all the versions to assemble 20 minutes of unseen footage. They decided to consult Renoir so the footage could be added in the right places. One scene where Octave discusses the sexual habits of maids is missing but otherwise the film is complete. When this restored 106-minute version was screened for the first time before Renoir, the great man had tears in his eyes.

The Criterion Collection has issued this version in a two-disc set. And what a fine job it has done. The transfer from what might be a 35-mm fine-grain negative is crisp and the contrast between light and dark that marks the film is sharper and nuanced. There are minor items to cavil about: the scenes comparison could have used commentary but that is trivial. Watching these DVDs was like reading an authoritative critical edition of a great writer. If we ever move to e-books, Criterion's would be the model to bring to the market.

Ars longa, vita brevis

Heaps lie on the kitchen and bedside tables to be read or re-read:

Nuruddin Farah, Maurice Blanchot, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Georges Perec, Alison Pick, Vila-Matas, Arundhati Roy, Javier Marías, Amartya Sen, Juan Goytisolo, Amitav Ghosh, Jean Baudrillard, Macherey, Azzopardi, Jean Giono, Futehally, Amitava Kumar, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Patrick O'Brian, Vassanji, Schlink, Anar Ali, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Álvaro Mutis, Tariq Ali, Foer, Redhill, Eden Robinson, Hariharan, Fanon, Ismat Chugtai, Hogan, Dai Sijie, Pavese, Akira Yoshimura, Zulfikar Ghose, Catherine Bush, Marqusee, Nabokov, Premchand, Reginald Reynolds, Siddharth Deb, Sciascia, Blanchette-Dubé, Themerson, Pizishkzād, Gramsci, Mo Yan, Arnold Hauser, Perutz, Vainik, Hanan al-Shaykh, Kim Echlin, Hardt, Negri, Yiyun Li, Stifter, Makine, Fedin, Sabina Murray, Hrabal, MacLaverty, Pierre Bourdieu, Mahasweta Devi, Thomas King, Silcott, Hašek, the new Rushdie and Vikram Chandra... Gawd.

Edicts: Fight off sleep as long as you can. Postpone work on the novel by writing blog entries that nobody reads.

Mottoes: the words of Longinus: Art is long, life is short. Work, alas, overflows the space you give it. If there was only a way to suspend time’s passage but not activity...

Winning entries on CBC radio

2005 CBC Literary Awards' prize-winning entries were read on Between The Covers. The English-language categories winners were broadcast on

Mon May 22 — 1st prize short story “The Chorus” by Erin Soros
Tues May 23 — 2nd prize short story “Happiness And Other Disorders” by Ahmad Saidullah
Wed May 24 — 1st prize creative non-fiction “I, Witness” by Kim Echlin
Thurs. May 25 — 2nd prize creative non-fiction “Drafts 1-11 (Not Including 10)” by Jane Silcott
Fri May 26 — 1st prize poetry “The Mind’s Eye” by Alison Pick; 2nd prize poetry “First Mountain” by Paulette Dubé

Societe Radio-Canada and CBC Radio One are co-broadcasters of the CBC Literary Awards. The Canada Council for the Arts provided the prize money and EnRoute magazine was a publishing partner for the Awards. Between the Covers can be heard online at CBC. The program is produced by Heather Brown and Dagmar Kaffanke-Nunn.

Books in translation

For those disenchanted with the quality and focus of much of recent Indoanglian lit, Penguin India's announcement in April 2005 seemed to promise a change. However, PI's programme to publish books in different Indian languages does not boost vernacular Indian writing. Rather, it introduces well-known fictionistas writing in English to Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam readers. We've learned since that Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (godawful title) has sold more than a million copies in Hindi, Malayalam, Gujarati and Marathi and that, wonders of wonders, J.K. Rowling even made an appearance in Delhi. Paulo Coelho's Zahir, which incidentally is banned in Iran despite hot sales there, is a bestseller in Malayalam. All this in a "soft" country where a sale of 1,000 copies of a book in English is considered good and where 5,000 copies make a best seller. (An exception is P.G. Wodehouse who still sells more 70,000 copies.) Sheela Reddy notes that with the increased purchasing power of Indians translated self-help and management books have become the biggest sellers. I hope that this one-way flow of globalization will not continue to mean a dumbing down. Can we see some better titles please? On a related note, Booker has announced a £15,000 prize for a work translated into English.


So from hour to hour we ripe and ripe and from hour to hour we rot and rot…

Of vampires and baitals

Deathless shape shifters have come in many forms and with varying habits, powers, and vulnerabilities such as eisoptrophobia (fear of mirrors) and alliumphobia (fear of garlic). Bloody-eyed creatures with coloured hair were written about in China and vampires and vixens are often associated with guileful women in Japan (no doubt some misogyny there). Shape shifters feature in Old Norse Þáttr and sagas, in the Old Testament, and in African stories. The ancient Greeks had their own composite Lamia, the Babylonians their Ekimmu, Romans their Stryx, and there was even a myth with a horrific beast from Penang. One Indian scholar believes that all vampire stories sprang from the worship of Kali, the goddess of creation and destruction, often depicted adorned with skulls, intestines or severed arms, thousands of years back in the valley of Kashmir. Regardless of their origins, one wonders how many of these colourful tales "travellers" such as Mandeville borrowed from this kind of lore; some certainly found their way into Othello's travel narrative and into European literature!

The oldest revenant myths seem to have originated in Asia and may have been carried from Asia (India, China, Tibet, Japan) by traders and travellers to Europe where they were gradually assimilated into pagan (pre-christian) traditions with some local variations. In some eastern European versions, the Roma peoples who went from India and spread through Europe by 1000 AD were often associated with vampire myths. Bram Stoker's Dracula is guarded by Szgany Romas which may have reflected their own beliefs of a dead soul passing into a deathless world.

Sir Richard F. Burton translated eleven of Bhavabhuti's "Baital Pacchisi" (Twenty Five Tales of Baital) from Sanskrit as "Vikram and the Vampire" in 1870. There may have been a fuller version. A suspicious mind may infer Isabel Burton's hand in bowdlerising the other tales from her comments in the 1893 preface to the memorial edition later re-issued by Dover (1969). In his introduction, Burton describes the influence of Indian vampire and other tales on the likes of Apuleius, Boccaccio and the author(s) of the Arabic 1000 Nights and 1 Night (which Burton also Englished) disseminated by traders and travellers of many nationalities passing through the Greek trading port of Miletus (now Turkey).

So what exactly is a baital? Burton's text has the demon, a ropy, muscular, all-brown figure condemned by a necromancer to hang upside down from the branch of a siras (mimosa) tree like a flying fox (a large bat) in the smashana ("cremation ground"). In her preface to Vikram, Isabel Burton describes the baital (demon or evil spirit) as a large bat vampire but in C.H. Tawney's translation of Vikram aur Vetala, the demon is a plain "ghost," as it is in Bannerjee's English version. Vikram's "vampire" is a playful, elusive figure but the word "baital" is the modern form of the Sanskrit "vetala," a demon that haunts burial grounds and revives corpses but the ghoulish practice of drinking blood that’s associated with vampires is not always specified. (However, other myths also tell of female demons who feasted on the blood of elephants.) "Vetala siddhi," said to be a tantric practice, refers to a form of "sorcery" for obtaining power over the living by "black magic, incantations, and ceremonies performed over a dead human body, during which process the corpse is desecrated." The incantatory properties of these tales are said by some to be linked to their use during the ashwamedha ceremony (horse sacrifice).

It's quite ironic that the concept of blood-drinking bats in older cultures may antedate the scientific discovery of actual vampire bats. In any case, by Burton's time, there was also a certain taste for the macabre that was emerging in England which linked vampires and bats. It may have had its origins in a wave of attack of vampire bats on eastern European peasants in the 1700s which is when the Magyar word "vampir" (blood-sucking bat) entered the English language (1732). The first modern equation of the blood-drinking undead with vampire bats in an English story is, we believe, James Malcolm Rhymer's "Varney, The Vampyre, or the Feast of Blood" (1845). It may have helped Burton's strengthen his identification of baitals with vampire bats. Varney certainly influenced Stoker who also owed debts to Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" and J. Polidori's "The Vampyre," similar texts that were published earlier. A “vampire” in Burton's time was common usage for a blood-drinking fiend able to transform his or her human form into a chiropteric shape. Who knows if the similarities in sound between the English "bat" and Sanskrit "baital" further helped Burton's associate baitals with vampire bats although, according to Skeat, the English word "bat" has obscure Scandinavian origins.

Tom Holland's Slave of My Thirst (1997) links the Indian vampire legend with the London Whitechapel murders. We don't know about the Vikram TV show from the 1980s having left India before that and we wouldn't be surprised if there is a bollywood version too. However, we suspect the connection between vampires and hallowe'en dates to the Lon Chaney Sr. days of hollywood horrors. Chambers’ Books of Days (1865) says hallowe’en is “the night set apart for a universal walking abroad of spirits" but does not mention vampires specifically. In his book on death traditions, David J. Skal, the American scholar of the gothic, notes a Hallowe’en postcard from 1909 with a bat as the centrepiece but that's hardly conclusive. Incidentally, Lee Siegel, a professor at the University of Hawaii (and a magician!) and an authority on the forms of the Indian macabre, is worth reading.

South Asian Chinese voices

With India and China poised to become world superpowers, it’s time to reflect on their shared histories and tensions. Huan-Tsang, or Xuan-Zang, (aka Yuan Chang) came to central India ca. 645 CE after his travels through central Asia. He studied Sanskrit and collected Buddhist scriptures and later introduced Buddhism to China. Since then, thousands of Hakka Chinese families have lived in India. Generations grew up in India without first-hand knowledge of China. The 1962 Indo-China war changed all that. Many left India for Australia, UK, USA and Canada after the quite horrific restrictions placed on their rights but we have been unable to find any scholarly or literary accounts in English of their experiences. All we recall is Altaf Fatima's The One Who Did Not Ask published a few years ago. Her character is a Chinese pedlar in pre-partition India but, as the title indicates, he barely speaks. Is there anyone who can break this silence? It's important to learn about our common heritage while politicians bicker over glaciers and nuclear accords.

CBC Literary Awardwinner Kim Echlin's Cambodia

Kim Echlin has been a documentary-maker and editor. She completed her PhD on the translation of Ojibway trickster stories. She has worked and travelled in Europe, China, the Marshall Islands, Africa and Cambodia. She currently writes and teaches in Toronto. Her books include Elephant Winter, Dagmar’s Daughter, and Inanna. She is also the winner of this year's CBC Literary Awards for creative non-fiction for I, Witness, her testimony to the killing fields in Cambodia in year zero.

Paul Ricoeur on testimony

“Testimony signifies something other than a simple narrative of things seen. Testimony is that on which we rely to think…to estimate…in short, to judge. Testimony wants to justify and prove the good basis of an assertion which, beyond the fact, claims to attain its meaning…The eyewitness character of testimony never suffices to constitute its meaning. It is necessary that there be not only a statement but an account of a fact serving to prove an opinion or truth.”

This Blinding Absence of Light

Another testament to that most murderous of centuries. Prix Goncourt and Prix Maghreb winner Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light uncovers an infamous event in history. Blindness, a book based in prisoners' testimony, is a harrowing account of courage told in simple prose that has been translated by Linda Coverdale. The book won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2004 and is on the shortlist for other major prizes.

A man lives in darkness. Salim, a junior officer, is swept up in an army plot to assassinate King Hassan II of Morocco in 1971. When the coup fails, some of the superior officers who have misled the soldiers into taking part change sides and arrest them. Upon the king's orders, the conspirators are taken to Kenitra prison and later driven blindfolded to the desert to Tazmamart and dumped into darkness. Salim and the others in Cell Block B are put in six-by-three-ft underground cells where light does not enter and where they cannot stand upright. It feels like being buried alive. They survive on a diet of water, bread and a revolting starch mixture.

One day, Salim is seized by prison guards. They thrust him into a bodybag and take him outside. He hears them debating whether he should be buried alive or allowed to dig his own grave. When they can’t agree, they return him to the cell on the verge of madness. To keep his sanity, he talks to the others. Salim and the inmates help each other by counting the hours and announcing the days to keep track of time and by praying. He tries to forget his former life (remembering is a form of dying, he thinks) and his father, a court jester at the palace, who has disowned him. Entire pages from Pere Goriot float up to his consciousness which he narrates to the inmates as he does The Little Prince and Baudelaire. He tells them the plot of The Streetcar Named Desire with Brando. He dreams of rewriting Camus' L'Etranger where Raymond, Meursault and their companions will be resting and playing the flute and will be shot for no reason by an Arab who will still be nameless but he gives up.

The prisoners look forward to an inmate's death as this is the only time they are allowed out into the light but even this outing is stopped by the authorities. Death is welcomed. It allows prisoners to snatch a dead man's clothes to cover themselves against the freezing cold. They sleep upright during the day but have to keep moving at night to avoid freezing to death. Many die from the cold, from constipation, from starvation, from eating bread poisoned with roach eggs, and one from being stung and eaten alive by scorpions that an NCO has dumped in their cells.

By the time word reaches Amnesty International, Salim has spent eighteen years in this hell hole. In his cell block, only three out of the original twenty-two prisoners have survived through sheer acts of will. Some of the living cadavers have shrunk by a foot in height. Finally, Salim is taken away from the concentration camp, examined by doctors and fattened up before his release. His eyes are mad, his teeth have dropped out, his limbs are atrophied. He cannot bear to look at his own reflection or sleep on a mattress. This is what freedom means to the tortured.

Plethoric writing

A provocation: Deep down, we feel Rushdie is, at times, a sloppy plethoric writer who needs a strong editor. We wonder if he can find one for his novels in his publishing circle with the necessary linguistic and cultural competencies. An exception to this observation which may prove the rule is Sonny Mehta's line-by-line editing of The Jaguar's Smile to the point which when we read it first led us to think ah, Rushdie is a much better non-fiction writer than a novelist (the obverse of Naipaul) where his best has been derivative (Grass and Desani being the obvious exemplars and amalgams of the central conceits of his most famous novel with its paan shop banter) but we should quit as we can see some hackles rising. The question remains.

Mapping ignorance

It's heinous when the foreign policy of a country such as the US is propped up by shamateurs prosing "expertly" on "Middle Eastern" culture but it's just as bad when its soi-disant literateurs reflect the same arrogance and ignorance. They ought to know better.

In a recent edition of Bookslut, reviewer Julia Ramey chose to group The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Snow by Orhan Pamuk, Mothsmoke by Mohsin Hamid and West of the Jordan by Laila Halaby as "Middle Eastern" books. Although Halaby makes the cut geopolitically and culturally, we fail to see how Hosseini, Pamuk or Hamid can be accommodated in the "Middle East." Even ignoring the eurocentricism of "the Middle East" as a term for the moment, we should point out that Hosseini is from Afghanistan and may self-identify as central or south Asian although he lives in the US. Pamuk is in Turkey and as such qualifies for a European or west Asian label if one must be found and Hamid from Pakistan would be considered south Asian.

If Ms. Ramey was truly searching for "Middle Eastern" writing, why couldn't she have started with Fuad al-Takarli (Iraq), Emile Habiby, Amin Maalouf, Hanan al-Shaykh (Lebanon), Abdelrahman Munif (Saudi Arabia/Jordan), Ahdaf Soueif, Naguib Mahfouz, Nawal al Saadawi (Egypt), Mohammed Darwish (Palestine), Amoz Oz (Israel), Sadegh Hedayet and Ismail Fassih (Iran), to name just a few modern luminaries from countries as different from each other as Sweden is from the US? We suspect though from the focus of her generalizations that Ms. Ramey is not really talking about Middle Eastern novelists as much as she is about Muslim writers. In any case, she should know that most Muslims are not Arabs and do not live in the Middle East (the figure may be as high as 80%) but that Jews and Christians, whom she excludes, do.

Given all this, the book that we'd recommend most to her, aside from an atlas, would be Edward Said's Orientalism. Most of her clichés, analyses, charlatanry and ignorance could have been preempted there.

Millions advance backwards

We just wonder sometimes if, a little like the Red Queen, we are being asked to swallow six impossible things before breakfast. Publishers claim that they're losing money but then we hear of an advance of US$8.5 million for Alan Greenspan's life, £5 million for 20-year-old footballer Wayne Rooney's memoirs, a million dollars for Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, a thousand-page opus. Ditto for the Clintons, Vikram Seth, and somewhat less to desi chick-lit (another godawful tag) newcomers Lavanya Sankaran and Kaavya Viswanathan (cancelled after her plagiarism).

So what is the average advance for a novelist? John Scalzi has his own rating scale ranging from $0 to $100,000 and above. Justine Larbalestier's survey of first-time novel advances is depressing:

1962: $1,000
1965: $3,000
1970: $10,000
1976: $700
1982: $7,500
1984: $7,500
1985: $2,500, $8,000
1989: $3,000
1990: $15,000
1995: $4,000
1996: $4,000
1997: $7,500
1999: $2,500
2002: $6,500
2003: $13,500
2004: $350, $10,000

Average advance: $5,920

Assuming a slump with $5,000 as the average advance for a budding writer in 2006, the million-dollar payola to Chandra means that as many as 200 new writers won't get book contracts as a result. Larbalestier concludes that "there's not a whole lot to be made writing novels. Find another way to make dosh. Personally I'd recommend plumbing."

The rationale for the big handouts? Apparently, in these days of Oprah and reality and TV, nonfiction sells. It makes so much money, sometimes four times the huge advances that they hand out, that publishers can afford to publish more fiction. Or so they say. We know that literary agents and houses are dropping their fiction lists altogether. Besides, nonfiction has taken a bad rap with the Frey, Nasdijj, and Leroy incidents (never mind the US papers' lies about the cause for war in Iraq) so what is its future?

Mr. and Ms. Malaprop, we presume

We are not talking about typos as in an English translation of Kathasaritasagar ("my lather is very ill") or about wholesale hilarity on the order of Conversational Bashghali ("thy bride is a girl" "what o'clock is it?") that Eric Newby mentions in his book on trekking in the Hindu Kush. Desi readers enjoy a malicious chuckle whenever they come across an obviously wrong translation or transliteration of a phrase from a south Asian language. We know we do. Travel guidebooks are a good source of amusement for us. One shoestring guide had an Hindi equivalent for "what is the way to?" which really meant "what is the best way to get lost?" No doubt the wag who did that had as much schadenfreude imagining travellers faced by grinning desis as we do, a little sadistically we admit, when we come across gaffes in E.M. Forster or H.R.F. Keating or the ones perpetrated by the British Gazetteer. The reach of south Asian fiction is global. So who has the capacity to edit this fiction which has grown beyond its borders? How many Sonny Mehtas are there in the global publishing field who can do line edits of these texts if needed? We'll return to this in a post on Rushdie but the question of mistakes in art beckons.

Awards for the poor life

Perhaps fittingly for someone who trades in suffering, a writer’s lot has never been a happy one. Baudelaire’s life was an essay in privations, Joyce lived as a beggar, and Dostoevsky died a pauper. Unless we have confused him with a period painting by a German artist, Oliver Goldsmith wrote in bed thrusting his arm through the hole he had cut in the bedsheet. Of course, then as now there were some early-days Dan Browns and Rowlings who lived well on favours, subscriptions and sales but they were a precious few.

Even in today’s laissez-faire age, it’s hard to countenance an industry that complains about hard times while it skims off 95% of the revenues from a writer’s intellectual labour. A writer often lives on sufferance, on meagre livings that can be gleaned from hackwork, a teaching post or two, by another career or on scraps of publicity. There are some consolations, namely literary awards. One surefire way for a newish writer to gain recognition is by serving on an awards jury.

Although James F. English in his book on the economy of prestige mentions that there are 26,000 arts and science contests with over a hundred prizes worth over $100,000, most literary prizes usually do not pay a lot. Exceptions are, of course, the Nobel and the Poetry Foundation with a chest of $100 million from Eli Lilly and some other well-heeled endowments. On the other hand, France’s Prix Goncourt, for instance, pays the winner the generous sum of $10 but guarantees that with the exposure the author can count on sizeable royalties.

Philip Larkin said that a poet could amass "medals and prizes and honorary this-and-thats . . . but if you turned round and said, Right, if I'm so good, give me an index-linked permanent income equal to what I can get for being an undistinguished university administrator — well, reason would remount its throne pretty quickly.” A writer is expected to be above this kind of venality. To ask for more is to be like Oliver but not to is hard to resist when we look at the millions doled out to sportsmen — we use the male form deliberately — and other “cultural geniuses” (a form of hyperbole that Ulrich in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities found distasteful even in the 1930s).

Some argue that contests are the best ways for peers to recognize the intrinsic merit of works; others complain that “readers” often screen out pieces that are not written by “professional” writers. Awards are said to be value-free but as, English points out, Toni Morrison’s supporters claimed that they rarely recognize writers other than their own. There have been scandals of writing teachers favouring their students and in one case a judge choosing her spouse. There are “blind” contests too. Whether these are truths or sour grapes, the richest irony may be that English’s book which is so critical of the prize mill has itself earned a prize.

There are dissenters. Amitav Ghosh spurned the Commonwealth Prize for political reasons and Zadie Smith crossed swords with the Orange Prize organizers. Recently, Angolan writer Luandino Vieira, known for his critiques of Portuguese colonialism in Africa, refused the €100 000 Camoes Prize for "intimate, personal reasons." African recipients of the Camoes Prize have included Mozambique's Jose Craveirinha (1991) and Angola's Artur Carlos Mauricio Pestana dos Santos, penname Pepetela (1997) and will be added to our reading list along with Vieira.

For writers who despair of winning recognition or a living, think of this example. Laxman Rao, 51, a poor man, has written 18 novels in Hindi — nary an award among them — while supporting his family by running a tea stall in Delhi.

Toronto for writers

We know about south Asian writing from Delhi, Bombay, London, New York and LA. Vanity Fair takes us to the land of Rohinton Mistry, M. G. Vassanji, Shyam Selvadurai, and Rabindranath Maharaj. Where else but to Toronto, the writers' capital of the north, which also boasts a DesiLit chapter? There are other Torontonians whom Vanity Fair doesn't mention: Nurjehan Aziz who runs TSAR publications with her partner Moyez Vassanji, Shani Mootoo, Anar Ali, and Nazneen Sadiq. And these are just a handful of writers in English. Although Urdu poetry may be fading in India, there's quite a scene for it in Toronto. Hindi. Punjabi, and Tamil writings also flourish.

... and for readers

The Toronto South Asian Book Club met on 2 May to plan its reading list for 2006/07. Except for Anar Ali's book, all are available in paperback:

June — Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
July — Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake
August — Meera Sayal, Anita and Me
September — Ginu Kamani, Junglee Girl
October — Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia
November — Shyam Selvadurai, Cinnamon Gardens
December — Mary Anne Mohanraj, Bodies in Motion
January — Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters
February — Anar Ali, Baby Khaki's Wings
March — Romesh Gunesekera, Heaven's Edge
April — Anita Desai, Fasting, Feasting
May — Shani Mootoo, Cereus Blooms at Night

The group meets the first Thursday of every month. The first meeting was on June 1 at 7 p.m. at the Chapters (2225 Bloor St. W. at Runnymede).

A note on reading and writing

Rick Salutin believes that Canadians read more for show than for pleasure or instruction. He points to book clubs and voting on books as proof of this malaise. However, those of us who are impressed by reading prodigies — JS Mill passim — should note the precocious infants in Vietnam who have started reading signboards, newspapers and books by the age of 28 months. The media will have turned them into a show of a different kind, no doubt. Of course, there are writer prodigies too. The pre-teen Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters (sic) features "an elderly gentleman of 47," if we recall rightly, and was even made into a film. Gemma Williams, 17, who could only read and write upside down was cured by the use of an amber filter.

The topology of writing

What are the formal structural similarities among the alphabets of various scripts? What is the underlying logic of letters? Is there a topology behind the use of letters? Can the forms be considered as a contour map of the features of the natural world such as trees, mountains houses, apartments and streets that are common to a certain culture or locale? Which shapes of letters are the most popular? Mark Changizi, Qiang Zhang, Hao Ye, and Shinsuke Shimojo from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena looked at "the common features of 100 different writing systems, including true alphabets such as Cyrillic, Korean Hangul and our own; so-called abjads that include Arabic and others that only use characters for consonants; Sanskrit, Tamil and other "abugidas", which use characters for consonants and accents for vowels; and Japanese and other syllabaries, which use symbols that approximate syllables, which make up words." Click here to read about the structure of letters.

Speculative fiction: A categorical objection

"Speculative fiction" is a term we have trouble with. All fiction is speculative. It posits a "what if" as its premise. Think of Joyce's Ulysses beginning with an elided conditional "(What if) stately, plump Buck Mulligan..." and the rest of the novel flows as an apodosis. At the beginning of speculation, said Aristotle, lies a feeling of child-like wonder. Good fiction is speculative even in the strictest sense of speculation (from "speculum") as it holds up a mirror to an age, a distorting mirror at times, to be sure. Through this act of seeing, fiction creates worlds with a weird but familiar and believable logic of relevance for the reader. So "speculative fiction" sounds like redundant cant.

Literature like any project or institution in our society seeks to perpetuate and reproduce itself through such "choices." "Speculative fiction" is, however, an industrial (publishing/academic) category. It is a catch-all genre for science fiction, ghost stories, horror, gothic tales, and fantasy and marks it off from other forms of fiction. The question to ask is: when these subcategories are clearer with their own histories why blur them under one grouping? The rise of science fiction as a genre, for example, has its origins in the industrial revolution in Europe and leads to specific utopian or dystopian narrative events. These are quite different in their genesis, traditions, values, outlooks, forms and styles from the tall tales of Baron Munchhausen, from Dante's Inferno, Hesiod's Cosmogony or from More's Utopia. Lumping them all under one rubric as emblematic of the speculative imagination is not useful. On the other hand, Michael Moorcock’s futuristic novels where he assumes an alternative world in which dirigibles, not airplanes, have become the common mode of transport readily qualify as speculative fiction. But why this need to squeeze writing into bottle with labels? Besides, as a writer-friend noted about the spate of dystopian science fiction, is it speculative fiction when much of it is real already?

We can also ask another question: what do these items in this "genre" then do collectively that other forms of fiction don't? The common ground is that "speculative fiction" answers a “what if?” It suspends, inverts or erases the natural order of things in favour of a "magical" narrative where reality is arranged differently, sometimes unrecognizably, but always freighted with more possibilities than the present. Todorov dwells on the literary space where two orders of explanations for events coexist: the natural and the supranatural, or the realistic and the fantastic. But that is true of many works of imagination and where does a hybrid form like magic realism fit in with its own traditions?

The history of modern European literature has had many such speculative writers in this new sense: Gilman, Walpole, Poe, Verne, Voltaire, Stoker, Huxley, Lefanu, Wells, Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, Kafka, Ivan Angelo, Calvino, Perutz, Borges, Zamyatin, Voinovich, Dick, Clarke, Lem, Moorcock, Pratchett, et alia. Certainly, Shelley, Poe, Kafka, Calvino, Perutz, Borges and some others can be said to have transcended their genres, whatever that means. Now academies may have overlooked others, assigned some of their stories a lesser value, and maybe this new genre is claiming them as the central figures of its pantheon but will there be cross-overs when the boundaries are made watertight and relativism rules?

There are some new writers to note. Japan has a notable tradition of science-fiction. Encouragingly, writers of colour such as Walter Mosley and Nalo Hopkinson are willing to interpose their new experiential counterpoints into the rather blank discourses of Atwood and Silverberg, Le Guin being the exception. One such stalwart Octavia Butler died recently. They need to be appreciated widely and deeply in the mainstream, more than just as oppositional tokens in a new marginal and manufactured genre.

We leave the junk categories of "creative non-fiction" and the "nonfiction novel" for others to unravel.

A reader writes

A reader sends in his praises. It makes the whole exercise worthwhile. We are pleased and somewhat flustered to quote them.

"What a treat. As I read, I thought I would mentally note a few things and compliment you on them. But, to my unease, the list kept growing, and I abandoned the idea. But the riches I garnered, unhinged me a little, by their variety and volume. I doubt there are any similar blogs rivalling in spice, slivers of info, splinters of satiric genteel-ism, and on occasions, wry mockery.

Redundant cant. Speculative Fiction. Weird. I ended my morning reading there. Other pieces, later. And, hearty congrats to have emerged a winner out of 3500 entries. This more than from just the parochial (Allahabadi) pride.

The literary and cultural cornucopia this blog is freighted with, and yet skims so airily, makes eyes pop open at every turn. The delight, the delicacy. And, the sudden discovery. Prix Goncourt awards $10! How to handle such a princely sum! I wish for monetarily more weighty awards coming to you. So that you continue exploring, venturing, regaling freely and long. Of course, without charging us, the readers.


Apples or oranges?

The apple is a potent fruit long equated with the rites of courtship, marriage and fertility. Centuries before the apple of knowledge was eaten in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, couples in seventh-century B.C. Greece shared apples as symbols of marriage and their hopes for offspring. There was the equally ancient practice of throwing apples at newlyweds at weddings so it's not surprising to find Aphrodite the goddess of love associated with apples. We are familiar with the story of the suitor, Melanion or in some sources Hippomenes, who on Aphrodite's advice rolled three golden apples that she had given him to distract Atalanta who had promised to marry anyone who outran her in a race. In the tradition of Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica, Atalanta, a formidable warrior, is listed as taking part in the expedition to recover the golden fleece probably because of her skills as a runner. According to Diodorus Siculus and Apollodorus, Atalanta was wounded in a battle with the Colchians and healed by Medea on the voyage. Suckled by wolves and brought up by hunters in Arcadia — Hesiod differs in this, he says Boeotia — where she had been exposed by her father who wanted a boy, Atalanta had joined the Calydonian Boar Hunt which led to some objections and bloodshed after which she was reunited with her father Iasus who wanted her to marry. However, an oracle forbade that but the lure of Aphrodite's golden apples proved too powerful for Atalanta to resist. She relented and the couple's sexual union in the temple of Zeus angered the god so much that he turned them into lions. It is worthwhile to mention another possible connection of Atalanta with gold. Αταλαντη "equal in weight" is derived from αταλαντος (atalantos) which is related to ταλαντον (talanton) meaning "a scale" or "a balance" used to weigh metals.

The source of the golden apples myth is interesting. In what some see as evidence of a shift in the classical pantheon from Titans to Olympians, Gaia the earth goddess gave golden apples as a present to Hera and Zeus on their marriage. Although the tree was planted in a grove circled by a high wall, guarded by Ladon a dragon with many heads which spoke different tongues at the same time (kind of an early-day Erich Auerbach or Spitzer), Hera assigned some nymphs, the hesperides (daughters of Hesperus, evening), to look after the fruit. The grove was in the Atlas region although some traditions put it in the isle of the hesperides among the hyperboreans ("beyond the north wind" at the northern edge of the world), the land of perpetual sunshine and perfect happiness. Perseus after slaying the gorgon Medusa rested in the kingdom of the titan King Atlas who had been told that a descendant of Zeus would steal the gold fruit hidden by golden leaves hanging from the golden branches of a tree made of gold in his orchard. In that story, Perseus used the gorgon's head to petrify Atlas into a mountain. In a related myth, Atlas had to travel from his kingdom to the land of the hyperboreans for the fruit. In his eleventh labour for his cousin Eurystheus (also associated with Atalanta and the Calydonian boar hunt), Perseus's descendant Heracles fulfilled the prophecy when he followed Prometheus' advice (whom he had found chained to a rock with his liver being devoured by an eagle which, according to Hesiod, he slew) and tricked Atlas into fetching the hesperidean apples from the land of the hyperboreans. (According to Jan Kott, the myths of Heracles were assimiliated into the bible and his eleventh labour to Mount Atlas which divides the cosmos vertically prefigures Christ's ascension to paradise.) Milton in his Comus also refers to the golden tree and calls the hesperides the nieces of Atlas. The legends of the golden apples, Atalanta, the argonauts, and the feats of Perseus and Heracles are intertwined with the geography of the Atlas kingdom and the land of the hyperboreans.

The often-touted theory that "golden apple" is an ekphrasis for oranges from Spain which the Greeks had heard about has been disputed by several scholars. A friend cited Timothy Gantz in his Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (John Hopkins, 1993) who claimed that the fruits were golden apples given by Aphrodite, nothing more. She further enlisted Agnes Mary Clerke's Familiar Studies in Homer (Longmans, Green, and Co, 1892): "The apple evidently excited Homer's particular admiration; he in fact, made it his representative fruit. That it should have been so considered in the North, where competition or the place of honour was small, is less surprising; and apples, accordingly, of an etherealised and paradisaical kind, served to restore youth to the aging gods of Asaheim." In her chapter on "Homeric Meals", Clerke wrote about apples, pears, pomegranates, figs, ollives, and grapes being cultivated but not oranges. Further support was garnered from the evidence that oranges came to Europe, first to what is now Spain, quite late from India. My friend cited Harold McGee on the citrus family from his On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (1984): "With the exception of the grapefruit and other recent hybrids, the members of the citrus family are native to Southeast Asia and were first cultivated in India (our word orange comes from the Hindi), China, and Japan. . . .but it wasn't until the Middle Ages that the lemon, and in the 15th century the orange, made it to the West, where they were initially treated as ornamentals and spice plants." [This is inaccurate as Hindi did not exist at the time of the transmission. Alan Davidson in the Penguin Companion to Food claims Charaka Samhita, a Sanskrit medical treatise, mentions the fruit for the first time by what has become its modern name "naranja." He derives the modern English term from Skt. "narunga" (fruit like an elephant), also transliterated as "naranga" whence Hindi "narangi." The transmission to Europe though may have been through Arabic "naranj" (Pers. "narang") which was used as "a norange" in English and later hyper-corrected aphetically to "an orange" (the original form survives in the Spanish "naranja"). According to a Purdue University website, the fruit is known as "naranja de China," "China dulce," or simply "China" (pronounced cheena) in some Caribbean and Latin American areas.]

Davidson notes that oranges were originally grown in southwest China and northwest India. Oranges were found in China as early as 2400 B.C. According to him, early Chinese documents mention them as being prized for the fragrance of their rind; when held in the hand, the warmth released their scent. The earliest eating orange, probably the mandarin, reached India from China in about 100 Common Era. Oranges went from India to Africa, and then to the Mediterranean area possibly through Italian traders after 1450. An alternative source suggests that six centuries after the Lombard invasion, the "bigarade" or bitter or sour orange was introduced into Spain by Arabs and into Italy and France by crusaders returning from Palestine. It is interesting to note that the oranges from roadside trees in modern-day Morocco are not eaten; their orange-flower juice is used to flavour food. The sweet orange reappeared in southern Italy and Sicily in the 15th century. The Portugese started to cultivate a superior kind of sweet orange upon Vasco de Gama's return from India ca. 1500. A sweeter variety emerged from China in the 16th century called the Portugal orange because the Portuguese spread it throughout southern Europe (the Greek word "portakali" may refer to this origin). The mandarin orange, a small loose-skinned orange named for the region of China from which it came, was brought to England from China in 1805. The lateness of the arrival of citrus aurantium var. sinensis L. (bitter Seville orange of which the sweet orange is said to be a variant) in Europe rules out oranges from being the golden apples of the old legends, the argument goes.

As the evidence indicates, oranges came first from India to Africa (the Atlas region was "known" to Greeks and mentioned in the heraclean labours) much earlier than their arrival in what is now Spain. However, direct transmission through Indo-Grecian contacts may be equally tenable as a theory as that's older than the transit points that have been suggested and challenged by food historians. The same Apollonius who wrote in the 3rd century BC including Atalanta on the Argosy certainly knew about India as did other Greek writers: he referred to Indian elephant tusks in the Argonautica. As the director of the Alexandrine library, Apollonius may have had access to more sources. However, other earlier and contemporary Greek writers in their extant accounts of India do not mention such a fruit. This does not mean that we cannot assume the possibility that the orange may have been known to Greeks by description, if not by name, even then although it may not have been available or eaten in Europe at the time. One also wonders if Apollonius chose to turn Atalanta into an argonaut searching for the golden fleece, not solely on account of her fleetness of foot, but maybe because of her association with something else that was also golden: apples or oranges — which, we shall never know for sure, but it's food for thought indeed.

Kahani for kids

Monika Jain and Leena Chawla have launched Kahani, "the first children's literary magazine for South Asian kids in the United States." The editors had found that "there was nothing for their kids to read that acknowledged their appearances or family backgrounds." I have not seen it yet but the reviews are good. In an interview in The Boston Globe, Chawla said she hopes to keep the illustrated quarterly free of ads and rely on sponsorships and subscriptions instead. If you have kids or know someone who does, this would be a fun way for them to get them to learn about the various south Asia cultures which I hope Kahani will include. Make a kid — doesn't have to be south Asian — happy. Become a sponsor or subscribe to Kahani. It will make a good holiday present.

Books and film

It’s expected that filmmakers would attend arts school. Peter Greenway’s framing and tableaux furnish proof of his arts training and Julian Schnabel who once called himself as a greater painter than Michelangelo has turned out some good films. Andreï Tarkovsky, the great Russian filmmaker, known for his lush and mystical evocations of nature and an exponent of the “scene,” believed that a filmmaker should be grounded in music, art, and literature. His films make references to Andreï Roublev’s icons, Breughel’s winter scenes, Piero della Francesca’s paintings, and to Don Quixote and to his beloved Bach. However, he found fault with Fellini’s attempts to create still lives on screen. He argued that film was too dynamic a medium for frozen or “live pictures,” as he called them. Equally, he reproached Pasolini who gave up writing novels for filmmaking for trying to create a literary syntax in his films through the use of cuts and montage. Ultimately, Tarkovsky believed that film should be neither literary nor painterly but ought to have a form of its own. (We wonder what he would have made of Chris Marker's narratology in La Jetée, with its 27 minutes of black-and-white stills.)

Known for the long take, Tarkovosky dreamed of being able to make a film without editing or music. Although it took four tries, his “disciple” Alexander Sokurov shot Russian Ark in one long take in the sumptuous interiors of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in one day in December 2001. Russian Ark features as expected some of the treasures of the art world but with live musical accompaniment. The film conveys 300 years of Russian history compressed into the real time of the actual Steadycam shoot (96 minutes). For us, the nearest “purely” literary equivalent to that one long take could be Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s pábení which, in one case, is a single sentence that runs the length of a novel.

Surprisingly few writers have been filmmakers although many filmmakers — Idrissa Ouedraogo and Zhang Yimou among them — work on scripts. Of Satyajit Ray, Yukio Mishima, Ousmane Sembene, Derek Jarman, Dai Sijie, and Michael Ondaatje, all of whom have written and made films, Sembene is probably the one who is best known for both. Despite Isherwood’s narrator’s confident assertion: “I’m a camera,” the nexus of literary text to film has a long and troubled history. Many writers find it hard to let go of their work. Stanislav Lem, the author of Solaris, loathed Tarkovsky’s version. He called it “Crime and Punishment In Outer Space.” His many arguments with the director and his cinematographer Vadim Yusov had left him on the verge of withdrawing his permission to film the book. He was equally displeased with Soderbergh’s Hollywood-romance version of Solaris. Czech film director Jiři Menzel, though, collaborated easily with Hrabal for many years to bring some of his novels to the screen, his narrative flow intact. As noted above, not all collaborations are this successful.

Books have been “film-treated” in a variety of ways. At the height of his powers, Bertolucci made his own masterpeices from works by Moravia and Borges. Satyajit Ray’s elegant neorealist approach to stories by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee (The Apu trilogy), Tagore (Ghaire-Bhare/Home and the World and Charulata), Tarasankar Banerjee (Jalsaghar), Saradindu Banerjee (Chiriakhana), Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee (Devi), Sunil Ganguly (Aranyer Din Ratri, Days and Nights in the Forest) and Premchand (Shatranj ke khilari or The Chess Players) resulted in superbly understated studies where the silence and pauses between the actions created tensions and meaning, as in Yasujiro Ozu's films. On the other hand, Akiro Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a film of overstatements. It matches the narrative force of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s stories as exercises in hyperbole and interpretation.

Luchino Visconti in mid-career chose a broader scope to bring Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard as a Technicolor epic to the screen. Raoul Ruiz realized film medium’s potential to play with time and reality in his fine adaptation of Proust’s Le Temps Retrouvé. Alain Resnais much earlier weaved the syntagma of Robbe Grillet’s Last Year in Marienbad in what was hailed as exploding many new-wave filmmaking pieties. However, generally, film adaptations have fared better in popular effect with drama or with prose works where the narrative structure is sequential and the actions clear. John Huston’s adaptations of Ben Traven’s Mexican novels, his version of Joyce’s The Dead and Jorge Fons’ adaptation of Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley match the cumulative power and beauty of the stories, even with some changes and shifts in emphasis or locales.

One may go even further to assert that popular adaptations work best with lesser or genre novels. Mike Moncada’s The Name of The Rose discarded the literary complexity of Eco’s text by focusing on the dramaturgical elements of the story. Similarly, Roberto Sneider’s 1995 version of Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s Dos Crímenes works well as a story with serialized action. Dev Benegal’s debut feature actually improves on Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August but keeps its “problematics” alive.

For works where the narrative drive does not rely on dramaturgy but on ellipsis, symbolism and atmosphere, some film directors focus on visual mise-en-scène to recreate a work’s suggestiveness. Visconti’s claustrophobic interiors suggest the onset of the miasmic plague in his version of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum which won him the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1988 substituted Mo Yan’s fragmented narrative with stunning, often silent, visuals.

In looking at drama on film, some examples of the various Shakespeare films should suffice. Grigor Kozintsev’s 1970 Russian version of King Lear with Jüri Järvet in the title role — he played Snaut in Tarkovksy’s Solaris — and the various adaptations of the history plays starring Derek Jacobi, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh were successful theatrical re-enactments in their own different ways. Like Kozintsev’s treatment of Lear which became distinct from the play, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood fitted Macbeth into the bushido code of Japanese samurai films.

This connectedness of film to text is not true of all cinéastes. Tarantino in his Kill Bill volumes delivered an experience that was purely kinetic and cinematic without the encumbrances of bookish plot, or attempts at depth of characterization or even believability (or, one may add, any interest). This is very much in the martial-arts film traditions but one up or one down — we favour the latter — on his exemplar Sam Peckinpah.

Although books have served as inspiration for filmmakers, the direction of influence in this visual age is reversing. With the focus on immediacy and accessibility, literature has taken to incorporating the language of film and TV, namely the visual properties of story construction in screenplays, into texts rather than the other way round. Most writing workshops stress the use of framing devices, découpage, shifts in perspectives and the primacy of the “scene” in composition. While books are optioned for film rights and the novelization process turns a film into a book (usually not a very good one), this reversed influence no longer valorizes written work. A film is not just an illustration and enactment of a text. It has turned from saprophytic imitation and mimicry to a self-sustaining interpretive medium that may very well engulf the text entirely one day.

Döppelganger fiction (excluding Kierkegaard and Gstrein)

What do Jorge Semprún and José Saramago have in common? Both were members of the Communist Party. Saramago still is — he describes himself as “a militant member” — but Semprún was expelled in 1964. Semprún, who adapted Vassily Vassilikos’ novel for Costa-Gavras’ feature film “Z”, and Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, wrote novels featuring literary characters-as-döppelgangers-as-protagonists. Ricardo Reis was one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms. In Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the eponymous hero returns to Lisboa from Rio de Janeiro in 1935 after receiving the news of Pessoa’s death. This Reis writes Pessoa’s verse and continues to be visited by the poet months after his funeral against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy. Semprún’s The Second Death of Ramón Mercarder features a character, also a killer, who bears the same name as Trotsky’s assassin (Mercader was one of his many names), twenty-five years after the assassination. Watched by the CIA, Stasi, the Soviets, and Spaniards, Semprún’s Mercader is later found dead in a hotel room. The quest for his identity begins. Is he or is he not the same Mercader? “Stories never begin where they seem to have begun. Their origins are sunk in obscurity, and a time comes when you suddenly find yourself in the very heart of a story,” Semprún writes. As in Borges’ famous story, the question is who is dreaming whom? Who is the creator, who the created?

Blowing up polyculturalism

What do the Rushdie case, the Behzti play and the beach riots say about the value of multiculturalism in states like England and Australia or even Canada for that matter? Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality in the UK, has said that multiculturalism belongs to a different era. English Shadow Home Secretary David Davis too wants to scrap the "outdated" policy which allows the "perverted values of suicide bombers" to take root. Salman Rushdie has waded into the debate with "it’s harder to celebrate polyculture when Belgian women are being persuaded by Belgians 'of North African descent' to blow themselves — and others — up."

Leaving aside questions about the roots of terrorism and the role of these countries in Iraq and in the war on terror, we should ask what will this model society look like? Will it be more gated than it already is to screen out others who have a different "descent" as Rushdie euphemistically puts it? How will it avoid the scenario of the banlieues of Paris because the French certainly haven't subscribed to the idea of pluralism or positive measures for reversing discrimination. Will it expel all those who are of a different "descent" into some wilderness and will the rest live in a fake little England of cream teas and elevenses that Julian Barnes recreated on an island once in a novel? Does it entail applying the Tebbit test of Britishness or its Australian or Canadian equivalent to its new citizens? What will this new national identity consist in? How will it be formed and negotiated? How will we avoid this "us" and "them" that led us to the flawed policy of multiculturalism in the first place? Flawed in that it was a form of neocolonialism, fomented divisions, ignored rights and power imbalances among groups in society. It's certainly time to move beyond multiculturalism but in which direction and how?

First of all, let's clear up some misconceptions. Ghettoization in these countries didn't happen because of political correctness or multiculturalism. Communities first banded together for support and survival against overt prejudice or as a result of policies that flowed from the dominant racial groupings in societies. That legacy persists. You only have to visit one reservation or an Inuit settlement in Canada to see that some communities still remain quite disempowered, impoverished, and isolated as a result of segregationist policies. (In fact, the Afrikaaner government in South Africa implemented their infamous bantustans policy after a visit to Canada where this model of reservations was studied.) Unfortunately, state responses to these issues over time have done little to solve the basic problems of access to jobs and education, which have deepened resentment in these enclaves. Too often, states in their dealings have given too much power to religious leaders who were interested in preserving the status-quo imbalances in their communities at the expense of those progressive community activists who have consistently promoted change, equity, acceptance and integration. For others, the situation has worsened after the backlash from 9/11 even in more progressive societies like Sweden or Canada. So, despite earlier progress in tolerance, there hasn't been real inclusion. Now with the backlash and with fundamentalism growing in pockets of urban poverty where UK/US policy in the middle east is resented, it's become very much the slippery slope to extremism and terrorism, as Davis avers. The situation has not been helped by governments' anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric while accepting newcomers needed to build and maintain national economies.

There's another question. Just what is this British, Canadian or Australian identity that is being mooted? We've heard about "fair play" and "Canadian values" as the defining characteristics of nationhood. How do these myths sell to Aboriginal peoples or to the descendants of slaves and head-tax payers? A few days before 9/11, at the UN Conference on Racism, most of these western powers refused to apologize for their roles in colonialism or even to admit that slavery was a crime against humanity. What does UK, Australian or Canadian foreign policy in supporting the unpopular and highly undemocratic right-wing "war on terror" through the use of torture, invasions, and depleted uranium say to citizens about democracy, pacifism, secularism and the rule of law?

The truth is that traditional national identities and values have never been static. Nationalist imaginaries of Britishness or Canadianness are myths of convenience that have served many a political purpose. This, however, should not excuse religious or political extremism of any stripe. We agree that that has to be squelched but not by controlling immigration — the problem is home grown, not always imported, it's time we realized that — through other means. If we opt for a belief in a country whose citizens have a commitment to live up to their responsibilities under a secular, democratic system where religion and politics are clearly separated, well and good. But you can't force someone to become British any more than you can change the colour of his skin, his "descent," his views or even public perceptions and stereotypes just by saying so or legislating it. A lot relies on changing attitudes to accept as citizens peoples with different racial origins. (A UK publishing executive noted that the demand for south Asian writers such as Hanif Kureishi is on the decline. Funnily enough, as we think of Kureishi as English but others obviously don't.) Identities are lived, dynamic, and participatory just as any inclusive process of nation building should be.

This question about identities has to be linked to any discussion about ending terrorism, about achieving parity, and about acceptance of everyone as English or Australian or what have you. These communities haven't always been listened to but while it is important to hear their stories we need to avoid getting mired into a culture of complaint. In turn, states ought to be scrutinized for their policies as they have been experienced by communities and that have created mayhem at home and in the world. For example, the USA and European powers can confess to their role in funding, arming, and training these Islamist fundamentalists who were their allies in fighting communism and genuine nationalist movements round the globe, the very fundamentalists whom they now disavow.

Although the onus oughtn't to be entirely be on citizens, one hopes that there will be more open debate which gives a leading role to the players from these communities who will be engaged to rebuild their societies according to a progressive vision. This would be a forum starting with an admission of where we all went wrong and where we need to go followed up by the kind of public education that takes us forward not backwards. Only by this form of public engagement about citizens' and society's fears and aspirations, about the barriers to equity, about people's rights and responsibilities will some consensus be formed which can be used to promote integration, curb extremism, and put an end to segregation and inequities that may exist. Such a nation-building project would lead to the articulation of the value of everyone's cultural expression and to a person's unquestionable right to equal citizenship independent of one's "descent" but rooted in one's responsibilities to building an inclusive, secular, democratic nation. The state would then have to ensure that everyone is treated equally and produce tangible improvements and equitable life chances, resources and power-sharing as results. All should be made to feel that they belong, that they are integral parts of the whole.

Everyone has to be involved; everyone should benefit. It's only through such a dynamic, open-ended process that you can ensure that Rushdie and Kureishi will be thought of as completely British one day. At present, sad to say, Europe, Australia or the US are hardly anybody's model of multiracial integration. Pluralism is a fact; diversity is here to stay. It's how you iron out the wrinkles that's key. We, for one, are all for trying.

Books for all

A report by the Bookseller and the Arts Council in England states that the book trade is ignoring the potential of the black and ethnic minority (BME) market. Michelle Pauli of The Guardian (UK) writes that the “Books for All survey of publishers, booksellers, agents and librarians found that a ‘fear factor’ was holding back the book trade from pursuing a growing market and a huge potential source of writing talent.” Since then, “new research published this week found that only one per cent of the 5,000 bestselling books sold so far this year were written by black or ethnic minority writers." Another study, Spread the Word, found that only 8% of BME poets get published although they are popular at poetry readings.

In passing, we should note that the term “black” in Britain is used Bikoesquely. It includes South Asians, Chinese, and other groups that have been discriminated against because of their skin colour or racial heritage. Ironically, publishers and publicists have been ringing the death knell of South Asian fiction in English for the last two years. Every misstep such as Kaavya Viswanathan’s plagiarism is said to underscore this. Moreover, it’s hard not to fulminate over being told (usually by marketing folk) that “we already have a South Asian writer” as if we were all alike. Is a similar census of writers of European heritage ever undertaken? When was the last time we heard a Polish writer being told that their Eastern European quota was filled because they already had a Hungarian?

Regardless of the conclusions, the Arts Council in England does do some research on these issues whereas the Canada Council for the Arts or the Ontario Arts Council have yet to deliver anything on that scale. A study is needed for Toronto where people of colour are numerically the majority but who remain underrepresented in every constructive realm. Perhaps, such a study here would lead to equitable publishing policies. We suggest that any survey include an attitudinal analysis and an analysis of barriers. Penguin Canada states a commitment to publishing new South Asian writers but it no longer has an open-submissions policy. A handful of European asset-stripping conglomerates have taken over major publishing houses in North America. As these giants don't have a stake in the cultural life here, their approach has been to discard or trim less profitable lines such as fiction. Yes, there are some small indie presses but not nearly enough to make for a level playing field. And so it goes.

Book reviews

Philip Ball, The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

None embodied the Renaissance’s excesses of imagination better than Paracelsus (1493-1541) whose birth, life, death and legacy are still surrounded by controversies and legends, including that of Dr. Faustus. Bayon called him a “rude, circuitous obscurantist,” Singer, “repellent,” Zimmerman, a “drunk,” Gesner, “an impious sorcerer,” Erastus, an “atheist pig,” Butler, a “mountebank.” and the Hoovers, “eunuchoid.” His champions include Browning, Mary Shelley, Borges and New Age followers.

Philip (Paracelsus) Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim was born to a once-noble family in Einsiedeln and grew up in Villach. He studied in European universities but left without a medical degree. Leonecino in Ferrara taught him to question Aristotle, Plato, and Galen. On his travels along the Venetian trade route, he documented peoples’ medical folklore in Europe, Africa, Russia and Scandinavia. Like Bacon, he favoured first-hand observation and experience over prescriptive book learning and galenics. Paracelsus learned about metals in Sigismund Füger’s labs, which informed his alchemy, an art practised by Newton and other scientists, but which marked him as a practitioner of witchcraft and black magic.

Ball clarifies the differences between Paracelsus’s views and those of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Ficino, Nicholas of Cusa, Erasmus, hermeticists and others. Much of Paracelsus’s life was spent dodging the plague, peasant wars, city-state battles, a corrupt church, various reformations, and the inquisition and he lost appointment after appointment. Paracelsus’s unfortunate personality and his vague writings didn’t help. He burned the works of Galen and Avicenna on a bonfire, harangued in taverns, wore the same filthy cloak for months, and once offered up a dish of faeces to his disputants as proof of transubstantiation.

Ball has written a fine introduction to Paracelsus. Only after Universite du Zürich’s monumental Paracelsus project is completed, will we learn the secrets of this complex seeker of knowledge without borders.

J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (University of Minnesota Press, 2006)

Materialist feminist geographers Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham who write as J.K. Gibson-Graham have reissued their postmodern critique of representations of capitalism and economy. Using an Althusserian lens of overdetermination, Gibson-Graham show that capitalism is not an inevitable tendency or hegemonic in diverse post-Fordist societies, as it has often been constituted in triumphalist right-wing discourses or in marxian analyses, but that alternative noncapitalist economies are possible.

Gibson-Graham’s project is to propose a language of the diverse economy incorporating counter-discourses from alternative traditions of economic thought, feminism, and working-class, third-world, and social and community movements such as the Zapatistas in México. For this, they use case studies and deconstruction of essentialist concepts such as class which they formulate as a process of intersecting sites for gender, orientation, income-status, and other oppression markers.

The authors have to be careful not to centralize their privileged white feminist locations in the academies. In analysing the feminist rape script, for example, which characterizes the domination of MNCs in today’s globalized economy as phallocentric, Gibson-Graham’s study of the semi-conductor industry in southeast Asia leads to their claim that “the economic ‘rape’ wrought by globalization in the Third World is a script with many different outcomes…we might read the rape event as inducing a pregnancy, rather than initiating the death and destruction of indigenous economic capacity.”

As Gibson-Graham’s next phases are to cultivate subjects for noncapitalist spaces and to build community economies, it is wrong to conclude that the inclusion of academicians in the movement can be sufficiently explained by an “erotics of desirability” on the part of other participants who may see them as exploitative, arrogant, detached and careerist. Some dislocation is needed within western academia and its own discourses before the distances between enunciators of theory and community can be bridged satisfactorily.